LEE COUNTY TORNADO: ONE YEAR LATER Senator sees work yet to do on tornado recovery, response

Current Work | Mon, 03/02/2020 at 09:38 AM

(Opelika-Auburn Now) — Doug Jones wants tornado victims to know their government is still working to help them recover.

Jones, the Alabama Democrat who narrowly beat Roy Moore in 2017 to claim Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat, made repeated visits to Lee County after the March 3 tornado outbreak to inspect the damage and see how cleanup and recovery progressed. He was pleased with the efforts he saw from the Lee County, state and federal responses.

“Overall, I was very impressed with the local response,” Jones told the Opelika-Auburn News this week. “I think FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) did a very good job, too. They were a real ‘Johnny on the Spot.’”

FEMA put $1.3 million into the county for "rental assistance, home repairs, and the repair or replacement of essential personal property for 136 survivors" according to agency spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, plus another $3.6 million to reimburse Alabama, Lee County and others state, local governments for debris removal and more.

FEMA is still working with Lee County residents and others who live in vulnerable areas to get them protection for the next tornado outbreak.

Homeowners can apply for FEMA’s storm shelter grant, which will pay up to $4,000 - or 75 percent if the cost is lower - and homeowners have to cover the remaining 25 percent of the cost for the shelter.

Jones acknowledged, however, that a lot of people affected are having trouble covering that match.

“We knew there were going to be problems, and we haven’t got all of the kinks out yet,” Jones said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to streamline the process.”

To that end, Jones recently introduced the Hazard Eligibility and Local Projects (HELP) Act, which would ease the start of response work and community safety projects after natural disasters like the March 3 outbreak while grant applications make their way through FEMA’s hazard mitigation program.

Jones said there’s other work that needs doing with regard to evacuation routes, helping seniors better prepare and getting private contractors into response efforts quicker. He said the National Weather Service also figures into process.

“I think we need a better warning system in place, and there are a couple of hot spots down in that area that could use better radar coverage,” Jones said.

Most of all, however, FEMA, Lee County and other public safety agencies need to keep spreading the word about the need for citizens to be prepared.

“We really need to educate folks to take this seriously,” said Jones.

Lee County residents can call (334) 749-8161 or visit leecoema.com for more information on disaster assistance.

(Mike Eads,  Opelika-Auburn Now)